I ran the Vermont 50 this past week, an ultra marathon, a trail run with an elevation gain of 8900 vertical feet, 50 miles long.
It was epic. Even as I write this I am fairly certain that my quadriceps have been beaten with railroad ties.
Years ago, as we set out on our first climb of the Grand Teton, my friend Rachelle stood at the base, looked up and said, “Well this doesn’t look very probable.”
I had the same thought at the start of the Vermont 50.
We had read lots of books and articles. We had trained for more than 16 weeks. But as I stood in the pre-dawn light waiting for the gun, all I could think was: Fiddy miles is a long way to go.
Eleven hours and ten minutes later, I crossed the finish line. I came away with lots of lessons. Here are three.
Ya Gotta Chunk It Down
I remember the elation I felt graduating from law school. And then the despair of realizing that the bar exam was a mere two months away. I had to review, condense, consolidate and assimilate three years of course work in just 8 weeks.
Every big expedition or project or goal since then has required the same approach: break it down into small manageable steps. Map it, lay it out, schedule it, and then go at it one step at a time.
Training for the ultra – one twelve hour span of time -required months and months of preparation. Running, fitness, diet, strength training.
Every day was planned. How many miles we would run. What we would eat. When we would go to the gym. Our travel, our commitments, all revolved around our training schedule.
Piece by piece we built the fitness. And when I stood at the line, I knew that I’d have to run the race in the same way. Biting off the entire thing would freak me out. But when I thought about it in three mile segments or five mile segments, it became imaginable.
Whether it’s a diet, an exercise program, a creative project, or a job, when the task is monumental, you need to break it down into small manageable steps. Map them out, write them down. Go at them one small step at a time.
Change Is The Only Constant
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” The Greeks have no corner on this point of view. The Buddhists say it too.
And it’s true. Nothing stays the same. Everything is in flux. All the time.
During the training, there were good days and bad days. There were days of pure elation. And days of utter despair.
Ofttimes without any rhyme or reason.
We could have a day of pure flow; and the very next day, it might feel as if our legs had turned to rebar. On long runs, five joyful miles could turn into ten of pure agony; and then back again.
We learned that every training day was different. We learned not to be driven by how we felt because of how transitory feeling are. And that it was ok.
On ultra day, it was the same. There were moments of great happiness and joy. At times our bodies seemed like they could fly. We would talk and laugh and enjoy the beauty of the land. And then, in an instant, discomfort, pain, exhaustion, distress and tears.
Knowing that it will all change, accepting the change, being with the change, and ultimately riding the change: these were some of the biggest challenges we faced.
They are some of life’s biggest challenges as well.
When You Can’t Go Further You Can
It took my breath away when she told me: Ann was dropping out of the race. Her pace had been slipping. She wasn’t going to make the cut off times. She wanted me to keep going.
This was a finish line we were supposed to cross together. We had trained together. And planned together. I didn’t know how I would go on without her.
And I was completely spent. My feet were torn up. My legs ached. My spirit was in the toilet.
I taped my feet and changed my shoes and lumbered off into the woods with the tears streaming down my face. Eighteen miles to go.
I kept up the self talk: “You’ve done 18 before.” “In four hours, you’ll be sipping a beer.” “Your feet will heal.” “The pain will go away.” “You can do this.” “Just make it to the next aid station.” “Just one more mile.”
Then just one more step, and one more, and another after that. And then in the distance, I could hear the music playing: the finish line. The tears came fresh and fast, now because I knew that I could do it, that somehow I had dug deep enough, and pulled it off.
We have such a small taste of what we are capable of as human beings. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. We can taste it in our toughest moments. Yet, for the most part, our true strength remains a shadow. When all seems lost, when we’re sure we can’t do more, when we’re convinced we can’t go further, we usually can.
Henry Ford said “Whether you think you can or can’t…you are right.” You might as well think you can.
Relentless Forward Progress was our ultra training manual.
Fiddy whispered: Be relentless.